TORONTO - The NFC South is one of the most intriguing divisions in football. It boasts Super Bowl contenders in Atlanta and New Orleans, another possible playoff team in Tampa Bay and some of the draft’s most explosive offensive talents, including Cam Newton.
1. Can the Falcons exceed expectations?
By that, we mean make the Super Bowl? The Falcons were 13-3 a season ago and there is little reason to think they can’t approach that record again. The offence is filled with quality in the likes of Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Julio Jones and Roddy White, the offensive line should hold up and the defence is above average. Is it time Green Bay and New Orleans step aside for the Dirty Birds as kings of the NFC?
2. Will the Falcons get bolder on offence?
Taking the next step might entail going for the big play more often. Ryan is a cautious quarterback, but he needs to take advantage of the dynamos he has in White and Jones. The team paid a ton to move up to take Jones sixth overall, but he has the athleticism and ability to quickly become one of the most dangerous receivers in the league.
3. What kind of an impact will Cam Newton have?
The No. 1-overall selection clearly isn’t ready to star yet (he’s completed just 40% of his passes, been sacked four times and hasn’t thrown for a touchdown in the pre-season). On the bright side, Newton hasn’t thrown an interception yet and has rushed for a touchdown, flashing his great mobility. He should be good in time, but don’t expect much early on.
4. Is Josh Freeman the real deal?
Freeman, the youngest Buccaneer quarterback ever to start and win a game, took a massive leap as a sophomore, throwing for 25 touchdowns against just six interceptions. If he continues where he left off, Freeman will become a top-tier quarterback. In his final four games of 2010, Freeman threw for nine touchdowns, zero picks, a QB rating of 127.8 and completed 71.6% of his passes.
5. Which Michael Turner will show up?
The guy who went off for 106.2 rushing yards per game and 17 touchdowns in 2008, the one who was banged up for much of 2009, or the Turner who dropped to 85.7 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2010? Turner’s 4.1 yards per carry was a career low and he turns 30 in February. The Falcons don’t have much behind him at running back.
6. Can the Bucs solve two major problems?
Tampa Bay has a heck of a time winning at home. The Bucs’ won’t make the playoffs if they don’t do a better job in Florida. The team is just 5-11 at Raymond James Stadium over the past two years. Part of the reason is the Bucs don’t get the crowd on their side early. Per the Tampa Tribune, the Bucs scored only 43 first-quarter points all of last season.
7. Just how ridiculous might New Orleans’ offence be?
Drew Brees is still as good as anybody, his receivers and tight end are dangerous, but the backfield is the key. If former Heisman winner Mark Ingram meets expectations, suddenly the Saints have an extremely dangerous trio of running backs in Ingram, Pierre Thomas and shifty all-purpose threat Darren Sproles (who is better than a poor man’s Reggie Bush). This team will put up a ton of points and probably will have to since the defence isn’t superb.
8. Will Carolina’s running game make up for its many faults?
No, especially not in this division, but it should give opponents fits. The combination of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart at running back is the envy of most teams and Newton is as mobile as they come. However, even Williams and Stewart won’t help Newton much if he can’t regain any semblance of the remarkable accuracy (66.1%) he displayed while at Auburn.
9. Will the Saints get enough from the defence?
We have no quibble with the defensive line which should once again shut down the run well, but the secondary remains a huge concern. The Saints grabbed only nine interceptions all season and were only +77 in point differential (to Atlanta’s +126) despite all of Brees’ magic. The still young Malcolm Jenkins (third year) and Tracy Porter (four) must step their games up along with the underwhelming veterans back there.
10. So, who takes this division?
The Falcons. Barely. Jones should give them the spark they need to stay ahead of the hard-charging Saints and Bucs. Tampa’s time is soon, but not quite yet. They might drop to nine wins before becoming a contender next season unless Freeman proves 2010 was no fluke. Carolina is a ways away. The Saints should be neck-in-neck with Atlanta for the division title.